As a 26-year-old law student, Michael Heyse is careful to spend his money on only the important things.
Such as Saabs.
The Silver Spring resident owns three of the Swedish cars, all bought used and then restored. He's even a founder of the Washington D.C. Saab Club. So it's a little odd that the next car Heyse would like to buy is technically a Subaru.
Or, as he calls it, a "Saabaru."
The new car Heyse covets is a Subaru Impreza that's been modified and repackaged under the name Saab 9-2X. It has a fancier interior than the Subaru version, a restyled front end and just enough Swedish accent to carry the Saab nameplate.
The crossbreed 9-2X is the latest example of how the auto industry is cannibalizing some of the most prestigious names in the business. Noble classics such as Saab, Jaguar and Volvo, having been bought over the past few years by commoners General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., are being dusted off and injected with some sturdy mass-market DNA.
Such marriages are tricky, as the push to cut costs in a competitive marketplace leads big companies to share parts with their subsidiaries and risk diluting the appeal of a distinctive brand. Ford, for example, infuriated some purists by basing the Jaguar X-Type, starting in 2001, on the humble Ford Mondeo, a family sedan sold only in Europe. The combination lowered the price of a Jaguar to within reach of the masses, and the car's all-wheel drive was a jarring departure for rear-wheel-drive loyalists.
But overall sales of Jaguars went up. The brand's quality ratings have gone up, according to the Power Information Network. And Ford has managed to make other models that seem like "a Jaguar," as Edmunds.com said about Jaguar's S-Type, which shares a platform with the Lincoln LS.
"They're really all trying to find their footing in a new world," said Art Spinella, an industry expert with CNW Marketing Research Inc. in Oregon. The new world demands that car makers crank out fresh, distinctive products far faster than ever before. Smaller, more eccentric companies often don't have the resources to keep up, so they either get bought or go away.
"All the brands we're talking about were dying on the vine independently, which is why they ended up in the clutches of these major car companies," said Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine. "So however you look at the performance of these brands . . . now, the alternative probably would have been extinction."
Saab, for one, "exists today because of GM, and I'm not sure we would otherwise had they not bought us," said Saab spokesman Kevin Smith.
GM bought a 50 percent stake in Saab in 1989 and acquired the rest of the company in 2000. Saab's sales have soared. Last year was its best ever in the U.S. market, with 47,814 vehicles sold for a 27 percent increase over the year before.
For decades, Saab offered only two model lines. GM is going to double that number in the coming year, with the debut of the 9-2X and Saab's first SUV, the 9-7X, built on a GMC platform.
Developing such new products on its own would have taken years and hundreds of millions of dollars, Smith said. Instead, when the company's Swedish leaders decided they needed an all-wheel-drive to compete in the luxury compact market -- against Acura, Volvo, Audi and BMW brands -- they were able to look around the GM catalog and find a ready-made offering: the Impreza from Subaru, which is 20 percent owned by GM.
Saab was able to take the basic platform -- the undercarriage and body of the car -- and add its own suspension, turbocharger and various style cues to create a plausible new product.
That wasn't an unusual route. Saab's other two models are also based on GM platforms -- the 9-5 on a platform from the Opel subsidiary in Germany, and the 9-3 on a new platform called the Epsilon that GM uses on the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am.
Ford is also sharing platforms among its prestige brands, and even borrowing from them. The new Ford 500 sedan and Freestyle sport wagon due out this fall are both built on the same platform as the Volvo XC90. "It allows us to save time, allows us to save money and allows us to control variability, which leads to improved quality," said Phil Martens, Ford's chief of product creation for North America.
Such cross-pollination is essential in today's auto industry, experts say. "They have to learn to take advantage of economies of scale because of the cost pressures on the industry today," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "This is not really an option; it's out of necessity."
But at what point does a Jaguar made out of Ford parts cease being a Jaguar? For that matter, if customers realize they can buy a Ford 500 for substantially less than the same platform with a Volvo name on it, why buy the Volvo?
Martens said the company is conscious of those questions and is trying to keep parts-sharing on the prestige brands limited to "the things customers don't see," such as engine control computers. "What you don't want to do is take, say, a door panel, or a trim section, and use it" on two very different brands. "Customers do still want to feel special about the purchase of an automobile."
Ford property Land Rover, for instance, is developing a new SUV platform that won't be spread among any other brands. Jaguar, similarly, developed its own new V-8 engine a few years ago when it could have saved money by borrowing one from Ford.
Sherman Taffel, president of the Nation's Capital Jaguar Owners Club, said he's satisfied that Ford now appreciates the need to safeguard Jaguar's heritage. People who criticized the X-Type for having plastic ashtrays instead of metal ones, he said, forgot that many 1970s Jaguars used cheap vinyl around the dash console.
Spinella said that as of last month, overall Jaguar sales were up 2 percent for the year compared with the first five months of 2003.
Saab and Volvo both took some early hits from disgruntled loyalists, Spinella said, but both seem to be bouncing back. Many auto critics have praised Saab's 9-2X, primarily because they were already big fans of the Subaru on which it's based.
But is it a Saab?
"It's a very nice car. Is it a Saab? That's hard to say," said Csere of Car and Driver, which gave the 9-2X a glowing review. "I don't know that it's really a Saab. It's awfully hard to say that it's a Saab."
Whatever it is, it's close enough for Michael Heyse.
"I would love to have that car," he said. "I would drive it in a heartbeat."